Cards Need To Tune Out The Noise

01/31/2013 10:48 AM

I had just boarded a flight for New York last March to cover the Big East Tournament. I navigated my way towards the back of the plane looking for a seat when I noticed a young woman all decked out in UofL gear.
I took a seat next to her, and as it turned out, it was the girlfriend of a then-Cardinal player. At the time, the Cards were struggling. They limped into Madison Square Garden having lost four of their last six games, including an embarrassing home loss to South Florida on Senior Night.
I told the young woman that I had packed enough clothes to make it to the championship game on Saturday night, but I was counting on it being a short trip. The vibe around the UofL program at the time was that the Cards might not win another game the rest of the season; that they could easily bow out in the first round of the Big East tourney and then face an early exit in the Big Dance the following week.
The player’s girlfriend looked at me and said, “We’re getting ready to make a run.”
I thought to myself, “OK, it’s a player’s girlfriend. Of course she’s going to say that.”
No one, and I mean no one at that time saw any kind of run in that UofL team. In fact, most people saw a burned-out team with bad body language that just wanted the season to be over.
Then she started to elaborate on her reasoning, and she kept my attention.
Yes, it had been a trying season. Yes, there had been some issues. Yes, the demanding style of Coach Rick Pitino had started to wear on more than a few of the players.
But the young woman told me that the team had met shortly before the tournament and decided it was time to tune out all of the noise and just play for themselves.
Forget the fans. Forget the media. And to a certain extent, forget the coach.
“They decided to just play ball,” the young woman said. “The only thing that mattered was them, the players. It was what they did on the court that would decide their fate, so they were just going to come together, play ball and shut everybody up. It was an ‘us against the world’ mentality.”
It all sounded good, but I must admit that I was still skeptical getting off that plane. After all, there are usually three sets of people you can count to remain positive no matter what the circumstances: mamas, wives, and girlfriends.
The Cards opened with Seton Hall in the Big East tourney. They survived 61-55. Then came Marquette. I thought to myself, ‘Surely I’ll be headed back to Louisville in the morning, right? Wrong. The Cards won that one, too. They handled Notre Dame with ease in the semifinals, and then outlasted Cincinnati in an ugly game to win the championship. I saw the player’s girlfriend after a couple of those games, and she would smile and give me the ol’ “I told you so” look.
OK, OK, so the Big East tournament run was nice and all. But I still wasn’t ready to pencil UofL into the Final Four or anything.
One thing I did notice in New York, though: With each win the tension and edginess that surrounded the Cardinal locker room had been replaced with a quiet calm and confidence.
And sure enough, Louisville’s improbable run continued, all the way to the Final Four in New Orleans.
The Cards are in somewhat of a similar spot as they approach February. They ended a three-game losing streak by wheezing past Pitt on Monday, but issues remain. The late-game offense has been a disjointed mess. Some players appear uncomfortable and unhappy with their roles. There’s been a lot of perceived finger-pointing and scapegoating.
Russ Smith, the team’s leading scorer and an All-America candidate, was benched for the Georgetown game. Backup guard Kevin Ware was suspended indefinitely after that Georgetown game, a game where he played just three minutes.
Once viewed as the favorite to win the national title, Louisville’s now hoping to salvage the highest NCAA tourney seed possible.
In order to do that, though, this team needs to take a page out of last year. It’s time to look in the mirror, tune out all the noise, and start playing for themselves.
On the surface it might sound selfish. “Play for the name of the front of the jersey, not the name on the back of the jersey,” is what the so-called ‘purists’ will tell you. But in the real world, what motivates people more than individual success? As much as most people love their respective institutions, you didn’t pull all-nighters or spend years in law school or medical school to make your college professor look good did you?
And let’s face it, there are several players on the UofL roster looking towards futures in pro basketball. What’s better for your NBA portfolio, letting the distractions and drama ruin your season, or saying ‘To heck with everybody’, getting your stuff together and making a run at a national title?
The Cards have the personnel to do it. But in order to pull it off, they have to put aside any concerns about playing time or who’s getting how many shots, or whether the coach has it out for them. I’m sure Pitino can be difficult at times, but he’s not stupid. When the season’s on the line, he’s going to go with the guys he feels like gives him the best chance to win games.
You know what made UofL’s run last year so remarkable? The Cards played eight games from that start of the Big East tournament to the Final Four. And they had *six *different players lead them in scoring during those games. Kyle Kuric one night, Peyton Siva the next. Chris Smith stepped up. Gorgui Dieng was next in line, followed by Chane Behanan. Russ did his thing. Winning games was all that mattered.
Pitino is 60 years old and is regarded as one of the most successful coaches in the history of the game. Whether you agree or not with all his methods, he’s not changing. It’s a life lesson most of us have to learn at some point. You may work for bosses you’re not crazy about. You may have co-workers you don’t care for. You may perceive that certain people play favorites. But at the end of the day, it’s all about professional pride and not letting the pettiness affect the bottom line. And that is something that the UofL players can control. Tune out the noise and make it about you.
After Louisville beat Florida to advance to the Final Four, I once again saw that player’s girlfriend down on the court at the US Airways Arena. She looked at me and remarked, “I guess you believe what I said now, huh?” I looked at her and said, “Yeah, I do. Mind if I take you and your boyfriend to Vegas some time?”

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